It’s time for the Green Human Development Index

by Ingrid Robeyns on November 16, 2020

The United Nations Development Program’s flagship index of wellbeing and social progress, the Human Development Index, no longer captures what humans need, and needs to be replaced by a Green Human Development Index. That’s what I’ll argue in this post.

First, some context for those who do not know the Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI is the main index of the annual Human Development Reports, which, since 1990, have been published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The reports analyse how countries are doing in terms of the wellbeing of their citizens, rather than the size of the economy. In 1990, the Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq had the visionary idea that in order to dethrone GDP per capita and economic growth as the yardstick for governmental policies, an alternative index was needed. He asked Amartya Sen to help him construct such an index. The rest is history. The HDI became a powerful alternative to GDP per capita. It consists of three dimensions and several indicators. The first dimension is human life itself, for which the indicators are child mortality and life expectancy. The second dimension is knowledge, captured by school enrollment rates and adult literacy rates. And the last dimension is the standard of living, for which the logarithmic function of GDP per capita is used.

It is easy to criticize the HDI for not capturing all dimensions of wellbeing, or for other shortcomings. For whatever those academic arguments are worth, there is no denying at how successful the HDI has been at accomplishing its two primary purposes: to dethrone GDP per capita and economic growth as the sole yardsticks for societal progress, and to stimulate policy makers to put human beings central in their institutional design and policy making. And by that yardstick, the HDI has been a great success. Each year, the release of the Human Development Reports captures the attention of media and policy makers worldwide. Many politicians and governments care about their ranking in comparison with other countries. And, most importantly, the political power of the HDI provides an incentive for countries to try to invest more in education and health, combatting child mortality and increasing life expectancy.

Yet, it is now time to abandon the HDI. Paradoxically, this is not despite, but because of its political success. The reason is that we have entered the Anthropocene – the geological epoch in which the human species is changing ecosystems and the geology of the Earth. The most well-known of those changes that humans have caused is climate change. And since these ecosystems and planetary boundaries in turn affect human flourishing, they must be central in any analyses of that human flourishing.

To see why we can no longer give ecosystems and planetary boundaries a peripheral role the construction of aggregate social indicators and subsequent policy analyses, we must listen to scholars from climate sciences and planetary systems. They are no longer speaking in moderate terms. The most recent studies indicate that we are on a path to a 4 degrees Celsius planet warming. As many scientists and journalists have explained by now, this will lead to great suffering and loss in wellbeing and freedoms for humans, in addition to many lives that will be prematurely lost.

We even don’t have to wait till the planet has warmed 4 degrees. The effects of global warming and the violations of planetary boundaries are already visible today. Insects are disappearing; there are more frequent and more dangerous storms, floods, droughts and wildfires; entire nations living in the small islands in the Pacific are preparing to abandon their territory because it will be swallowed by the sea; and ecological breakdown contributes to social instability and even wars.

Scientists and earth systems governance scholars have been telling us for a while what actions need to be taken – such as decarbonising the economy, changing our food production and consumption, reforestation, restoring nature, rebuilding cities to be ecologically sustainable. Yet these measures are not taken far enough, and implemented fast enough.

And as if this isn’t bad enough in itself, some actors with high stakes in the current way of operating are spreading lies and disinformation, and are lobbying to slow down the financial loss of their productive capital.

And what has been our response?

Politicians have been doing too little, too late in addressing climate change and other forms of degradation of the planet. But it’s not just them: those of us doing research in the social sciences and humanities are also not yet fully aware that we should be playing a different type of game. We need radical changes in what we value in public policy, and hence also in what we measure and study.

We cannot construct measures of human wellbeing, human development, or social progress, if we do not properly include the state of the most essential prerequisites of human life – the state of our planet itself. Not properly accounting for this fundamental dependency just shows that we have not yet accepted the complete vulnerability of our own existence, and the existence of humans that will live in the future, on the quality and quantity of environmental resources and ecosystems.

And this radical shift must include that we understand and value that whether we stay within the planetary boundaries and respect ecological sustainability is not just a matter of ‘yet another good thing’ that might or might not be added to an index. Respecting planetary boundaries is of foundational nature, since it concerns the ultimate preconditions for decent life on Planet Earth.

What, then, should the UNDP do?

The UNDP should use its political power by giving the global political system a shock. The current HDI is a ‘Grey HDI’: it disregards the pollution and ecological destruction that takes place in the creation of human development and doesn’t give proper weight to efforts at strengthening the ecosystems. The central role that the Grey HDI has in the Human Development Reports should be replaced by the ‘Green HDI’ – an index that gives much more weight to the very preconditions of life, hence what nations do to protect and strengthen the ecosystems and to what extent those nations respect limitations that stem from planetary boundaries. The Green HDI should look at the dimensions of human development, such as education, health and living standards, but also consider whether that development takes place while respecting the boundaries of the planet and whether a country is not taking more than its fair shares of natural resources.

There are currently several such indexes already developed and proposed. For example, one could divide the HDI of a nation by the ecological footprint of that nation. There are other alternatives possible and proposed, though not all will do as possible candidates for the Green HDI. One requirement for the Green HDI is that we need a single index, not a dashboard of indicators, which dilutes its political impact. Another requirement is that the ecological preconditions of human life must be given the weight they deserve – hence it should not be merely one dimension among many, but a foundational and pivotal dimension.

Many of the countries that currently are scoring very high on the Grey HDI would end up in a lower place on the ranking of countries. The levels of human development in those countries are parasitic on the crossing of planetary boundaries, excessive greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, soil depletion, and so forth. These high levels of human development also often takes place at the expense of the HDI of other countries by outsourcing waste. Since staying within the planetary boundaries is an essential precondition for human wellbeing of all in the future, and for some vulnerably located people already in the present, a country that takes more than its fair share of those ecological dimensions will score lower on the Green HDI than on the Grey HDI. The opposite will happen for countries that have a small planetary footprint, and that have far-reaching policies to protect the ecosystems and environment.

Replacing the Grey HDI with a Green HDI would serve at least three important political functions. First, it would no longer reward countries that have high levels of human development at the expense of the planet by giving them a high ranking in the Human Development Report. One can expect that a country such as the USA, that in international comparison scores well on the three dimensions of human development but does so in a very ecologically unsustainable way, will fall significantly in the ranking. Countries such as Costa Rica which invest a lot in environmental protection are likely to be rewarded in the pecking order by receiving a higher ranking on the Green HDI compared with what they currently have. Given that Human Development Reports always gets a lot of press attention, this will not go unnoticed.

The second effect will be a political effect that follows from the first. Rewarding ‘green policies’ in the index will be an incentive for policy makers to think deeper and harder about how to respect planetary boundaries in their policy making. Perhaps one might be skeptical how strong such an incentive would be, given that there are already various country-rankings related to greenhouse gas emissions. But the difference is that the HDI is seen as an alternative for GDP, and if the Grey HDI is simply replaced by the Green HDI, the latter will also inherit the HDI’s political power. That is a power that international emissions rankings have never gained.

And thirdly, in the world of ideas and ideologies, it is of utmost importance that a very influential medium such as the Human Development Report makes clear that we can no longer play the old game. Respecting planetary boundaries is not a fringe issue; it is an absolute precondition for human flourishing on this planet.

What, then, would happen with the HDI? The next Human Development Report should move the Grey HDI entirely to the appendix, together with all the other HDI-related indexes that measures particular aspects of inequalities in human development. Although these indexes played a hugely important role in making the message clear that governments should be putting people before profit, they are from a bygone era that didn’t attend to the centrality of sustainability. Without a healthy planet, there cannot be human flourishing. The UNDP should finally embrace this insight wholeheartedly, and give us the Green Human Development Index.

At the first Future of Development Dialogue that took place last week, UNDP’s Administrator, Achim Steiner, mentioned that the 2020 Human Development Report will be released on December 15th. This year’s topic is “Human Development and the Anthropocene“. We will know by mid-December how the HDR sees the relationship between human development and the planet’s ecosystems.



JOHN FORD 11.16.20 at 3:45 pm

Just to say thank you–this is a wonderful post.


Chris Armstrong 11.16.20 at 4:36 pm

This is a really important and thought-provoking idea, Ingrid. Can you say a bit more about how ecological sustainability could be integrated into the index? I think you want it to be something bigger than just one more indicator to add to the three existing ones, because it’s foundational. What would that look like in practice? Would sustainability be a kind of multiplier of the other three dimensions? Could a country end up with a negative HDI?


Kenny Easwaran 11.16.20 at 6:34 pm

When you talk about “planetary boundaries”, what do you mean? I at first thought you were referring to international travel when you mentioned “crossing planetary boundaries”, but I realized eventually that this didn’t quite make sense. I’m guessing that instead it refers to creating emissions that are beyond certain thresholds, but it’s not clear which thresholds would be used, given that most of the climate phenomena don’t have clear thresholds – any amount of increase is bad, and any amount of decrease is good, whether or not it crosses a particular threshold. (There may be thresholds that are particularly significant, when certain positive feedback loops kick in, but it’s very unclear where those thresholds are.)


Ingrid Robeyns 11.16.20 at 7:30 pm

@kenny Easwaran, – sorry, I should have inserted a link to anyone who hadn’t yet heard of Planetary Boundaries – see for a brief explanation. I will insert a link in the post, thanks!


nastywoman 11.17.20 at 5:14 am

”It’s time for the Green Human Development Index”

Since quite some time.


Zamfir 11.17.20 at 1:00 pm

I looked at the linked “SDI”proposal. That one is rather different from the regular HDI – it’s “top 10” is Cuba, Coast Rica, Sri Lanka, Albania, Panama, Algeria, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Peru. At least some high HDI countries end up low ( the paper gives only examples, Uk at 131, Qatar at 153, Norway at 157, US at 159).

There is a much large difference going from HDI to SDI, than from GDP to HDI. That’s not surprising I guess – HDI combines factors that are broadly correlated, but the SDI proposals involves factors that are anticorrelated – that would be true for every other alternative as well, I think?

That makes me wonder: is this approach robust? In the sense that different reasonable approaches give mostly consistent results? This SDI methodology for example involves a series of non-linear transformations on its inputs. Those transformations completely determine the result. A country gets almost no credits for polluting less than Cuba, and zero credits for being richer than Cuba. So Cuba ends up as the optimum. This despite Cuba exceeding both “planetary boundaries” in the methodology by a fair amount. A small tweak to the pollution calculation, and Cuba (and several others in the top-10) would drop to about halfway on the list.

Perhaps this concern is specific to this SDI indicator, but I can imagine that it is unavoidable. If you want to capture a trade-off between two factors in one number, can you avoid making strong assumptions on the correct trade-off?


Tim Worstall 11.17.20 at 3:24 pm

” The most recent studies indicate that we are on a path to a 4 degrees Celsius planet warming.”

That’s not actually true. We’re not in an RCP 8.5 world. This being just a small example of the problem with the greater idea.

” The Green HDI should look at the dimensions of human development, such as education, health and living standards, but also consider whether that development takes place while respecting the boundaries of the planet and whether a country is not taking more than its fair shares of natural resources.”

The definitions of those things are so hopelessly lopsided that they’re not useful. Take that ecological footprint thing (Wakernagel ? et al) that keeps telling us we need three planets etc. In the bowels of that it says that a nuclear power plant has an emissions profile the same as a coal plant producing the same energy output. No, I don’t say nuclear is perfect but that is an absurd estimation. And basing global targets on that sort of absurdity would be, well, absurd.

The current measurements of where the planetary boundaries are just aren’t ready for prime time.


MisterMr 11.17.20 at 8:41 pm

@Tim Worstall 7

Ok but we can’t wait untill we are all dead to have better indexes.


Hidari 11.17.20 at 10:03 pm


RCP 8.5 is not 4 degrees of warming. RCP 8.5 is 9 degrees of warming, which is essentially game over for the human race. (In any case, RCP’s are an old fashioned way of looking at things and have been largely superseded by SSPs: Shared Socio-economic Pathways).

To quote Nature: ‘ The teams that drafted the SSPs imagined a storyline that is very close to the path that the United States and other major powers are taking. The SSP3 scenario, called “regional rivalry — a rocky road”, is defined by a resurgence of nationalism. It sees concerns about economic competitiveness and security lead to trade wars. As the decades progress, national efforts to lock down energy and food supplies short-circuit global development. Investments in education and technology decline. Curbing greenhouse gases would be difficult in such a world, and adapting to climate change wouldn’t be any easier. Under this scenario, the average global temperature is projected to soar to more than 4 °C above pre-industrial levels.’

There is also the issue that many of these predictions (indeed, the smooth ‘shape’ of the lines of the graphs make this clear) presuppose that climate change will be largely a linear affair. Perhaps. But, equally, perhaps not. To quote Business Insider (and who better?)

‘Researchers also worry that if we see more than a 2-degree-Celsius temperature increase, that could tip the balance of our planet’s systems toward a “hothouse Earth” scenario. In that case, a feedback loop could lead temperatures to rise by 4 or 5 degrees Celsius.’

Or indeed, higher, as feedback loops ’cause’ other feedback loops and so on.

So even if we do manage to limit warming to 2.5. degrees (or whatever) we might end up getting 5 degrees anyway. And of course that might in turn lead to global warming spiralling out of control.


Hidari 11.18.20 at 9:45 am

Here’s the source for the quotes above

I got one thing wrong, incidentally, I misread a chart. RCP 8.5 is not 9 degrees by 2100, its 5 degrees but there’s no reason to think the temperature will stop rising in 2100. On the contrary, in this scenario, the likelihood is that the temperature will simply continue to increase (why shouldn’t it?), and this doesn’t even take into account feedback loops. So 9 degrees of warming is certainly possibly by, say, 2200 (although this is not the most likely scenario, at the moment).


Deborah Delgado 11.19.20 at 4:15 am

I really loved this reflection and I agree with all of it. I think that this important topic has to do with how index&metrics can empower people, (local people and “developing” nations) to imagine under their own standards what planetary boundaries mean and how to safely operate under them. I see UNDP as an arm of intervention that is global in scope (and valuable for that reason) but gropes about operational definitions on what are human practices that sustain the living world. Even the planetary boundaries index doesn’t actually give us a hint on how to sustain life, but only what are the limits in which we can operate without dramatically harming it. It is time to understand the principles of the practices that have kept us living under the planetary boundaries and make them the core of any development effort.


notGoodenough 11.20.20 at 3:10 pm

Unfortunately, currently my work precludes me from making a thoughtful comment (“no change there, then [howls of laughter]!”). I think this hits the nail on the head – understanding the problems helps combat the problems.

Part of the issue at the moment is to get meaningful data dn the relevant context. How does EDGAR calculate the emissions? It is possible to find out, but it takes a lot of time and energy. How does increasing renewables affect general quality of life? Does it really decrease emissions, or are the surprising impacts (e.g. increased energy use)? Does this change country to country? Demographic to demographic? And so on, ad infinitum.

I feel a “report card” backed with a database of highly granular data would be a very interesting tool. It would enable an overview along the axes described, but also one could make deep dives into the raw information. My suspicion is that this would be highly useful for exploiting applied statistical methods to find interesting correlations and to investigate questions in more depth.

But as I am writing this in my tea break, it is not a well-outlined proposal – just a random thought. Certainly the OP’s proposal is an intriguing one, and I believe would be a good step forward…


Dr Steve Cruel 11.20.20 at 11:28 pm

I don’t have anything meaningful to add to this, but I think it is a valuable and well-considered post. Thank you.


John Quiggin 11.21.20 at 12:38 am

Following on @12, it may be time to give up on the idea of an index number that summarizes how a country or society is doing. GDP is a theoretical construct that is primarily useful for macroeconomic management, rather than as a measure of welfare. But it’s based on a 20th century economy, where economic activity was based mostly on material throughput (ag and mineral products, transformed in the manufacturing sector, delivered to consumers by the service sector) and where everything grew at more or less the same rate. The bits that didn’t fit, like health, education, information and environmental damage were small enough to be treated with arbitrary adjustments. But now the situation is reversed. Only about half of a modern economy is concerned with producing and delivering physical goods (broadly defined to include things like construction and energy). Taking a measurement framework based on goods production, then trying to expand it to cover all the things we care about today doesn’t seem likely to work.


John Quiggin 11.21.20 at 12:44 am

Climate Tracker suggests current policies have us on course for 2.7 to 3 degrees of warming

That’s a lot better than the Business As Usual projections that we were looking at a while ago. OTOH, the consequences of the limited warming we’ve already had (such as wildfire and hurricanes) are worse than most expected.

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